England’s National Trust: A Historical Thumbnail Sketch

archesThree names are forever linked with the creation of The National Trust, founded in 1895. Octavia Hill, housing reformer and champion of higher education for women, Canon Rawnsley, who was devoted to the Lake District, and Sir Robert Hunter, a solicitor who loved Surrey. They founded a private company which would acquire – by purchase or donation -‘beautiful and historic places’ that were at risk.’ They concentrated on acquiring land, a reason why the National Trust owns so much of the Lake District National Park, and many architectural buildings of interest.

In 1907 the Trust was incorporated by an Act of Parliament, who proposed that its properties be declared ‘inalienable’, neither sold or mortgaged, but protected by law. The Trust, still an independent organization was now destined for future growth.

The 1920’s gave rise to the conservation movement and in 1926 the Council for the Preservation of Rural England was founded to fight urban sprawl. The Trust continued its concentration upon land, the coastline and small and old buildings.

In 1934, Philip Kerr who had inherited Blickling Hall in Norfolk, with no heir, brought to the Council the suggestion that they should consider acquiring country houses in England thought to be protected by their heirs and within large estates, but In fact were deteriorating, a process which the Second World War only compounded.

When Harold Nicolson, husband of Vita Sackville West, the owners of Sissinghurst,  joined the Historic Buildings Committee at the end of 1944, the identification of the most important houses at risk was in full swing. Under its new Country Houses Scheme, the Trust was acquiring impressive, but mostly dilapidated houses. Those who wished to insure the future of these estates had to meet certain qualifications: these houses had to be of great architectural merit and to be endowed, open to the public, and, in the main, still lived in by their donors and families, so that they seemed like homes rather than museums.

The 1946 National Land Fund, which allowed houses to be accepted in lieu of estate duties, was extended in the 1950’s to cover the contents of houses so that family collections of pictures and furniture could be kept intact and in their proper settings.

The greatest treasures of England country were now being held by the Trust.

The National Trust pioneered  the idea of  conserving gardens in England. This began immediately after the Second War, when not only the houses but the fate of great gardens were at risk. In my novel, Greening of a Heart, I write about the fact that after the war many of the men who had managed these large estate gardens did not return to gardening, but preferred to go to work in the cities with greater pay. The owners of these large estates, now without help, were faced with how to care fore these large gardens; neglected and too large to manage themselves.

Philip Kerr who had inherited Blickling Hall in Norfolk, with no heir, suggested that the Trust think about acquiring these important country houses that were going to be lost either because of no heir or inadequate funds to carry on. The first meeting of the Trust’s Gardens Committee was on 23 March 1948. It was a combined committee of the National Trust and the Royal Horticultural Society and its members were all great gardeners.  The Committee’s purposes, who understood the care that would be necessary to maintain these wonderful gardens were to consider the management of  gardens on their merits.

By the 60”s the Trust was coping with the burden of all the great houses it sought to save. The Trust was also being criticized by those who thought they were straying too far from their primary aims, that of saving the landscape of England and Wales. Although a reorganization of the Trust abolished the Gardens Committee, the world outside the Trust was becoming interested in the conservation of gardens and took up the cause. (To be continued another day)

Or…check out @History and Landscape: The Guide to National Trust Properties in England, Wales and Northern Ireland by Lydia Greeves. 464 pages. “This guide has been described as the National Trust’s bible, and does full justice to the Trust’s illustrious collection of color photographs, and showcases recent acquisitions.”

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About Stepheny Forgue Houghtlin

Stepheny Forgue Houghtlin grew up in Evanston, IL. and is a graduate of the University of Kentucky. She is an author of two novels: The Greening of a Heart and Facing East. She lives, writes and gardens in NC. Visit her: Stephenyhoughtlin.com
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